What's best for your bread? Leonie Nimmo chews the fat.
Butter, margarine and spreads are products for which appeal has shifted with the fashions and food fads of the times.
Margarine has been promoted as a healthy, low-fat alternative to butter, but the perceived health benefits of eating low-fat are these days challenged by concerns over hydrogenated oils and transfats.
In more recent years, butter has been making a comeback, boosted by a trend towards eating more natural foods and also the rise in popularity of spreadable butters.
This Buyers' Guide focuses on the products which command the major share of the market, as well as a few organic or more ethical alternatives, some of which are available from supermarkets as well as local wholefood shops.
Butter is also produced by smaller, local companies; these are not covered in this report, but if butter is the preferred topping for your toast, supporting local companies and cutting down on food miles is always a good option. Supermarkets' own brands are also not covered in this report as their market share is relatively small.
The scoring in the table opposite reflects a combination of company scores and the sustainability features of individual products. The company scores are generated by Ethical Consumer's database, which contains stories about the companies relevant to the categories shown at the top of the table.
Companies lose marks for unethical practices. The product sustainability features covered in the table are organic (O), marketed as vegan (Vg) and marketed as vegetarian (V).
Unilever stands out with its exceptionally low ethiscore of 1: the company's massive corporate social responsibility drive of recent years cannot erase stories documenting their activities around the globe. Windmill Organics is at the top of both the butter and margarine sections of the table.
As a company with a turnover of less than £5 million which also only produces organic food, they receive an exemption under the environmental reporting category, and also pick up product sustainability marks for each of their products.
The Suma products score less than usual in this Buyers' Guide, as the products are manufactured by a subsidiary of the Kerry Group, one of the biggest food companies in Europe and, as such, the products have been 'parented' to both Triangle Wholefoods, the company which owns the Suma brands, and the manufacturers. The Kerry Group also owns the company which produces the Pure Dairy Free brands.
Palming it off
One of the key ingredients of most margarines and spreads is at the forefront of producing climate chaos: palm oil, often disguised as 'vegetable oil' in the ingredients list of food products. Indonesia is a key supplier of palm oil and is also the third largest greenhouse gas emitter after China and the USA.2
This is due to rainforest clearance and the destruction of peatland, much of which has been converted to palm oil plantations. Palm oil is found in one in ten products on our supermarket shelves and, coupled with the increase in demand for biofuels, trade in the product is rocketing and the alarm bells of environmental and social pressure groups are ringing ever louder.
In 2007 the United Nations Environment Programme predicted that if deforestation in Sumatra and Borneo continues at the current rate, the orang-utan will be virtually extinct in 15 years or sooner.
Alongside climate change and other environmental issues, the social impacts of the palm oil industry on local communities have been at times catastrophic. Indigenous people have suffered from land grabs and the destruction of traditional forest resources, whilst workers have been subject to systemic rights abuses.
This is not a situation confined to South East Asia: in Colombia community leaders have been murdered by paramilitaries linked to palm oil production.3 Food security in many areas is said to be increasingly threatened by the conversion of land used for local food production to palm oil plantations for export.
In response to global concerns about palm oil production, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was established in 2004. It is a multi-stakeholder organisation whose members include NGOs, transnational corporations, banks and other investors, growers, processors and traders.
It has been heavily criticised for greenwashing: Greenpeace claims, "many in the industry are using the RSPO to cover their backs, putting off urgent action while the destruction continues" (naming Unilever, Cargill and Nestle).4
However, it was the first organisation to be established solely for the purposes of creating sustainability criteria for an agricultural commodity, and marrying the concerns of such a diverse group of stakeholders was never going to be an easy task. At the very least, it does provide a forum for companies to be challenged over unsustainable exploitation and human rights abuses. (See Issue 112 for a feature on the RSPO.)
All of the UK's biggest food retailers have joined up to the RSPO, presumably in response to consumer pressure. Out of the companies featured in this report, Johnson & Johnson and Unilever are members. Matthews Foods, a subsidiary of the Kerry Group which produces the Suma and Pure Dairy Free margarines, is a member of the Margarine and Spreads Association, which is an affiliate member of the RSPO.
Unilever, which accounts for 4% of global trade in palm oil, holds the position of chair of the RSPO. In November they received the first delivery of palm oil certified as from sustainable sources by the RSPO — an event that environmental pressure groups were far from enthusiastic about.
Greenpeace simultaneously published claims that they had collected evidence that showed the supplier, United Plantations, is embroiled in illegal practices, including deep peat conversion and land disputes.4
It is extremely difficult to avoid palm oil in margarines and spreads. Consumers who prefer a vegan diet flavoured with a clear conscience will be pleased to hear that palm oil used in the Biona products comes from Daabon organic group in Colombia, which are certified by Proforest for "sustainable manahement".
Proforest assessments cover the impact on the soil, water, air and biodiversity, as well as local communities. It is claimed that the certification protects natural forests by ensuring that no plantations are planted on lands deforested since the end of 1994. This is the only company in the report which we could find that certifies its palm oil in this way.
Saturated with hydrogenated hype?
The less than fully health conscious consumers amongst us may be slightly baffled by the more-than-four-syllable words bandied around the margarine and spread industries. What exactly is the difference between mono- and polyunsaturated fats and can we believe claims of cholesterol-lowering foods made by some manufacturers?
The promotion of margarines and spreads as a healthy alternative to butter is based on the fact they contain more polyunsaturated and less saturated fat.
According to Joanna Blythman, "Most spreading margarines are made with hydrogenated (chemically hardened) vegetable oils and many scientists believe that this process converts the more desirable polyunsaturates into something called transfats, which may be every bit as harmful as saturated fat.
"It is thought that they delay the absorption of fatty acids and raise the levels of bad cholesterol in our blood, while some research even links them to heart disease."6
Margarine is highly processed and carbon-intensive. It is usually made by combining water and cheap vegetable oils, such as palm, rapeseed or sunflower.
They have often been industrially refined and, even where higher quality oils such as olive oil are used, they may have lost much of their taste and nutritional qualities through this process.6
The liquid oils are hydrogenated by bubbling hydrogen through the oils to turn them into solid fat. They are then mixed with water, but as water and fat do not usually mix, emulsifiers such as lecithin or monoglycerine are used as well.
Flavourings, stabilisers, colourings and preservatives are also added, along with artificial vitamins. If this isn't enough to put consumers off, some margarines also contain animal gelatine to improve consistency, such as Benecol Light and Flora Extra Light, featured in this report.
Flora Omega 3 and Utterly Butterly Omega 3 are also not suitable for vegetarians as they contain fish oils. Biona Omega 3 contains rapeseed and walnut oils instead. Low-fat and low-calorie products substitute some of the fat for extra water. Mmmmm.
Some healthier products are made with cold-pressed oils or non-hydrogenated vegetable oils. The spreads covered in this report that use non-hydrogenated oils are Biona, Suma, Pure, Stork, Bertolli and most of the Dairy Crest brands (Willow, Utterly Butterly, Clover and Vitalite).
Suma has stated that they use palm oil because it is a hard fat and therefore does not need to be hydrogenated.7
So perhaps 'natural' butter is a better option? According to Genewatch, the majority of genetically modified (GM) crops currently being imported into the EU are being used for animal feed only due to consumer rejection of GM products on supermarket shelves.
Labelling requirements for GM food do not cover food produced by animals fed on a GM diet. A Soil Association report published in November last year estimated that around 60% of the maize and 30% of the soya in the feed used by dairy and pig farmers is GM.8
Due to the prevalence of GM animal feed on the market, Ethical Consumer has marked down companies that do not have a policy on genetic modification based on the assumption that unless they do, it is likely that the animals used to produce the products have been fed GM food.
The companies in this report that do have an effective policy are Triangle Wholefoods (Suma) and Windmill Organics; organic certification requires non-GM animal feed to be used, so the organic products by Rachel's Organic and Yeo Valley will also be GM-feed free. The Pure brand of spreads are also GM free, but there is not a company-wide policy.
According to Corporate Watch, Unilever has taken a leading role in the promotion of GM food. In response to a questionnaire from Ethical Consumer in October 2008 regarding the company's current stance on genetic modification of food crops, the company stated:
"Our companies are free to use ingredients derived from modified crops, which have been approved by the regulatory authorities and which meet our own standards for quality and acceptability."
Amba is a co-operative owned by approximately 9,400 Danish and Swedish dairy farmers.
It produces Lurpak, Yorkshire Butter and Anchor Butter, which it claims is made from milk from free-range cows. However, there are no certification schemes for free-range dairy products, and many dairy cows live outside.
Dairy Crest is one of the largest dairy companies in the UK.
It is marked down for not having a policy on genetic engineering, which is also the reason that none of its brands have been awarded a Best Buy in this report.
Dairy Crest has been accused by the Office of Fair Trading of being involved in price fixing between 2002 and 2003.10
Kerrygold is owned by the Irish Dairy Board Co-operative Ltd, which is owned by the farmer-producers.
Both companies are marked down for inadequate environmental reporting and supply chain policies and for not having effective policies on genetic modification.
The Kerry Group plc owns Matthews Foods Ltd, manufacturers of Pure Dairy Free and Suma Spreads. It has operations in six countries on Ethical Consumer's list of oppressive regimes, and two tax havens.
A takeover by the company of Breeo Foods was blocked by the EU's Competition Authority in 2008 on the grounds of unfair competition.11
is now owned by the Dean Foods Company, the largest processor and distributor of dairy products in the United States.
A boycott has been called against Dean's Horizon Organic brand by the Organic Consumers' Association in the USA, following allegations that its 'organic' cows were confined to indoor feedlots.9
Dean Foods supported the use of rBGH genetically engineered growth hormone in its conventional dairies.9
The Benecol brand is owned by Raisio plc but in the UK is licensed to McNeil Nutritionals, which is a subsidiary of pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson.
In 2004 the Food Magazine criticised the marketing of Benecol (and Unilever's Flora pro-activ) as cholesterol-lowering foods, as concerns were raised that it could give consumers a false sense of security in terms of their risk of heart disease.20 Furthermore, plant sterols, the active ingredient, can also lower blood concentrations of valuable antioxidants, such as beta-carotene, by about 25%, alpha-carotene by 10%, and vitamin E by 8%.
A boycott of Johnson & Johnson has been called by Naturewatch, for failing to have a fixed cut off date for animal testing, and the Boycott Israeli Goods campaign, as it has subsidiaries in Israel.
Windmill Organics loses a mark on the table for not having a policy addressing workers' rights at supplier factories.
Although the company is underneath the £5 million turnover exemption for being a small company in this category, it has not demonstrated an 'effective if not explicit policy' that is required by Ethical Consumer's rating system for this exemption.
However, it is worth noting that the company only produces organic products, and hence supply chain transparency and some safeguards for protecting workers' rights will be in place. The latter are product-specific, and therefore not applied across the board to all suppliers.
Further reading and links
Boycott Israeli Goods campaign
Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations (SOMO)
Rettet den Regenwald (Rainforest Rescue
Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil
1 'Yellow Fats — UK' Mintel September 2007
2 'New deal agreed to help protect one of the largest 'carbon stores' on Earth' www.greenpeace.org.uk/media/press-releases/new-deal-agreed-help-protect-one-largest-carbon-stores-earth-20080815, viewed 20/11/08
3 'Urgent Action Colombia: Death and threats in the Curvarado river basin' www.regenwald.org/international/englisch/, viewed 20/11/08
4 'Sustainable Palm Oil' Ethical Consumer, Issue 112, May/June 2008
5 'First certified palm oil shipment just a bit of public relations lubrication?' www.greenpeace.org.uk/blog/climate/first-certified-palm-oil-shipment-just-bit-public-relations-lubrication-20081118, viewed 20/11/08
6 'The Food We Eat' Penguin, 1996
7 Email from company, sent 20.10.08
8 'Silent invasion: the hidden use of GM crops in livestock feed' Soil Association, November 2007
9 The Ecologist, December/January 2008
10 'Supermarkets "fixed dairy prices"', www.bbc.co.uk, viewed 20/10/2007
11 www.hoovers.com, viewed 20/11/08
12 Unilever Sustainable Development Report 2007: Environmental Sustainability
13 The Ecologist July/August 2003
14 'Power Hungry- six reasons to regulate agrifood corporations' ActionAid report 2005
15 SOMO Reports: Unilever — Hindustan Lever Ltd, India, June 2006
16 SOMO Reports: 'Sustainability Issues in the Tea Sector', June 2008
17 'Running Dry', The Economist, August 2008
18 'Big Food Companies accused of risking climate catastrophe', The Guardian, 08/11/07
19 Corporate Watch newsletter, Issue 25, August/September 2005